Enjoying the benefits of diverse autumn produce
Every season has its signature produce, and each harvest provides just the right combination of foods to make dishes that complement the weather. (As I’m fond of saying, God knew what He was doing!) In autumn, we’re greeted with a delightful array of starchy and crunchy vegetables, chewy mushrooms and dense fruits. This combination not only makes for lovely soups, stews, casseroles and pies but also contains high levels of nutrients that support overall health by zapping common disease markers.
Squashes for Roasting and Stuffing
There are so many varieties of winter squashes that it’s impossible to list them all! Here are a few that should be on your radar this season:
- Sugar pumpkin
Each has its own unique appearance and flavor, but the one thing they all share is the vibrant color that broadcasts their abundant antioxidant content. In fact, World’s Healthiest Foods reports that winter squashes are one of the top three food sources of cancer-fighting carotenoid compounds. High levels of fiber contain pectins that protect against inflammation and diabetes. A compound called cucurbitacin has a regulating effect on certain inflammatory markers in the body, meaning that squashes could hold promise for those with conditions that present with or are affected by inflammation.
In terms of nutrition, eating squash gives you a big dose of vitamin A, vitamin C, a range of B vitamins and several trace minerals. They’re also an unlikely source of omega-3 fatty acids despite being a low-fat, high-starch food.
Ways to Enjoy Winter Squash: Roast in the oven (cut in half or cubed), boil and mash the flesh with sweet spices, use spaghetti squash instead of pasta, hollow out and stuff with a mix of grains and beans or use as serving bowls for autumn soups and stews.
Picking Perfect Potatoes
The potato’s bad reputation stems from the typical Western practice of taking a perfectly healthy vegetable and turning it into deep fried junk food. When you skip the oil and enjoy potatoes in their natural state, they’re amazingly good for you. Browse any farmers market in the fall, and you’ll find Russet, Yukon gold, purple, red, fingerling and sweet potatoes. And that’s just a few highlights from the litany of tasty potato varieties.
Far from being the nutrient-poor “white vegetable” that they’re often made out to be, potatoes contain quite a bit of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and copper. Sweet potatoes are even more nutritious. The bright orange flesh delivers a dose of vitamin A, vitamin C and an impressive amount of B complex vitamins. All types of potatoes are rich in fiber.
Consuming regular potatoes may help to lower blood pressure thanks to compounds called kukoamines. The vitamin B6 content supports the creation of neurotransmitters, which are essential for proper brain and nerve function. Carotenoids are abundant in orange sweet potatoes, and sweet potatoes with purple flesh provide anthocyanins. These and other antioxidant phytonutritents might help reduce the risk of damage from heavy metals and free radicals as the food passes through the digestive tract, making sweet potatoes are a sweet treat when it comes to cellular health.
Ways to Enjoy Potatoes: Roast them in the oven, make baked fries with or without seasonings, make curry with cauliflower or spinach, layer in casseroles, add to soups, bake and top with nutritional yeast and vegan sour cream or serve baked and smothered in chili.
Also called cruciferous vegetables, Brassicas include cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, radishes and rutabagas. One of the outstanding characteristics of these leafy and crunchy veggies is their reputation for being cancer-fighting powerhouses. Thanks to beneficial sulfur compounds, including sulforaphane, Brassicas may be able to modulate the development of tumors and aid in mechanisms that kill off cancer cells. Phytonutrients known as glucosinolates convert to other compounds during digestion and could also help lower the risk of certain types of cancers.
World’s Healthiest Foods offers and extensive breakdown of the Brassica nutrient profile. In a nutshell, adding these fall favorites to your diet gives you:
- The highest amount of vitamin A carotenoids, vitamin C and folic acid of all vegetables
- More fiber than any other vegetable
- A high dose of bone-building, anti-inflammatory vitamin K
Omega-3 fatty acids appear in Brassicas at levels comparable to those in fish. Although these fats are in ALA form rather than EPA or DHA, you still get an impressive amount of essential fatty acids from eating your favorite crucifers.
Ways to Enjoy Brassicas/Crucifers: Toss raw into salads or slaws, steam lightly and season with mixed herbs, add to curries or stir fries, saute with garlic and mushrooms, add to soups, use leafy greens as wraps, use cauliflower to “lighten up” mashed potatoes, mix broccoli into mac & “cheese” or make hash with Brussels sprouts.
Note that you can enjoy pretty much the whole plant, including the leaves and stalks of broccoli and cauliflower. Chop the stems with the rest of the vegetable and use the leaves in place of another green veggie instead of throwing them away. Broccoli stalks are also great with hummus!
Appreciating Apples and Pears
I literally eat apples by the bushel this time of year, and for good reason. There are so many to enjoy: McIntosh, Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Crispin, Braeburn, Cameo, Empire, honeycrisp…the list goes on. You can even find out your “apple personalty” on the New York Apple Country website.
No matter what kind of apples you eat, you reap the synergistic effects that various compounds in the fruit have when combined with the fiber. Along with a high phytonutrient content, this has a powerful positive impact on the health of the flora in the GI tract, which may help explain how apples lower both total and LDL cholesterol levels. Eating apples in their whole form helps to slow carbohydrate digestion, reduce glucose absorption, stimulate insulin release and improve insulin sensitivity at a cellular level. In short, apple lovers have healthier digestive systems, a lower risk of heart disease and more stable blood sugar.
Pears are at least as impressive as apples with their wide variety and numerous health benefits. They’re best consumed with the skins on, since that’s where half of the fiber and a majority of the phenols are found. This time of year, you might munch on Anjou, Asian, Bartlett, Bosc, Comice, Forell or red pears. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods notes that all types of pears provide healthy doses of vitamins C and K, as well as copper and the powerful antioxidants known as epichatechins. In addition to fiber’s ability to lower the risk of both heart disease and diabetes, the type of fiber in pears may also be able to bind with excess bile acids to offer protection against gastrointestinal cancers.
Ways to Enjoy Apples and Pears: Eaten raw with or without nut butter, dried, cooked in oatmeal, baked into crisps and crumbles, in pies, stuffed with dried fruit and spices and baked, baked with sweet sauce or on top of waffles and pancakes.
Munching on Mushrooms
With their earthy flavor and chewy texture, mushrooms were one of the original meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegans. It’s hard to find a word other than “meaty” to describe varieties like portobello and oyster. White and crimini mushrooms are a bit less intense but no less delicious. When it comes to Asian dishes, shiitake are the king, and porcini make their way into a variety of unique recipes that require a deeper flavor.
In The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Michael Murray highlights the cancer fighting properties of many types of mushrooms. Polysaccharides and beta-glucans give button mushrooms this power, and shiitake, maitake and reishi have been prized for their medicinal properties for centuries. Shiitake in particular are known for their lentinan content, a compound that not only boosts the immune system but may also help to lower cholesterol. Administering lentinan along with chemotherapy has been shown to improve survival rates among patients with certain cancers.
Depending on the type, eating mushrooms can give you a good amount of minerals such as selenium and iron along with vitamin C and protein. If you’re lucky enough to have a source for gourmet mushrooms like I do with the Mariaville Mushroom Men, don’t hesitate to try something new like pink oysters, puffballs or the oddly named (but completely vegan) chicken of the woods.
Remember, although guides like this visual one from Epicurious and this interesting article about fall foraging from Mother Earth News give a lot of information about different kinds of mushrooms, you should never pick wild mushrooms without a guide to show you which ones are safe. If you’ve been trained in foraging, pass the knowledge on to someone else to preserve the tradition!
Ways to Enjoy Mushrooms: Sauteed with garlic & greens, as a pizza topping, as a burger or steak substitute, sliced and sauteed as wrap ingredients, marinated and baked, in gravy, in stir fries or on salads (but make sure they’re safe to eat raw).
How is autumn produce making its way to your table? I’d love to hear how you’re enjoying these and other fall favorites!
Want to learn more about how eating fresh, seasonal produce can improve your health? Schedule a FREE 15-minute phone consultation with me and get started on the path to better living through plants!